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Artists Make What Businesses Want

1. Artists Do Not Make Art

Here’s a paradox I witness every week:

On one hand, artists and authors feel that business is alien to them, and on the other hand, business people feel that making meaningful art is alien to them.

I meet, talk, and work with such creative people and business people every week. Both sides of creative commerce have something the other wants and needs.

Artists notoriously feel more inadequate about their lack of money smarts than do the business people I meet who lack art smarts. For artists and other creative people who feel inadequate about whether or not they can sell enough bracelets on Etsy or corral enough design clients to pay the rent, first, remember what you truly make.

You do not make bracelets or designs.

You potentially make something else much more valuable. 

2. Vulnerability

The artist stood among strangers and friends, almost crying. He glanced at the floor and across the faces and back down at the floor. He was not confessing nor revealing any big secret. He simply sought the words to express what he does or what he’s trying to do with his art.

To a non-artist or anyone who does not daily wrestle with her or his creative daimon, this struggle for words might seem strange. But to the 20-plus designers, coaches, artists, musicians, radio show hosts, teachers, and authors circled around for the HV:CREATE meet-up, the vulnerability ringed familiar. And true.

“When I’m outdoors in the woods or on a hill,” he said, “I’m with God. It’s divine.” He paused. “When I’m in the studio, it’s the same.” And then the clincher:

“I want to give people that experience somehow in my sculptures.”

After the group filtered out of the cafe, he and I talked some more. He like many artists thinks that what he’s trying to sell are canvases and sculptures. But I redirected him back to his talk.

Why do we want and need art? We crave it, and yet in American culture we don’t see how apparently invaluable it is. Especially artists don’t see how valuable their own art is. Fiction writers don’t see how obviously invaluable their fiction is. But we need it to feel more deeply, to think differently, to experience life again in a new way. That’s what he’s selling. He’s selling meaningful experiences.

Artists don’t make paintings. Authors don’t make books. Designers don’t make logos. They make meaning. They make meaningful experiences happen.

3. The Full Equation in Creative Commerce

As reluctant as some authors, artists, theatre directors, actors, and teachers are to think in business terms, they are the very ones that start-up businesses are in turn learning from. They make what businesses want.

This is something Bruce Nussbaum elaborates on, though not completely, in his book Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire (Harper: NY, 2013).

The smartest start-ups and businesses focus on creating meaningful experiences with whatever they make – whether it is a book, event, app, or gadget. Nussbaum calls this quality “aura,” drawing from Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this seminal essay, the German thinker describes how unique works of art have an almost indescribable quality that, I would say, captivates and moves us. He called it “aura.”

Nussbaum speaks specifically of certain objects’ and products’ emotional hold on us.

But I want to extend the quality of aura to captivating and elevating creativity Captivating and elevating creativity applies to products (books, canvases, designs, apps) to services (coaching, consulting, hospitality, NPOs, health and wellness) and to events (workshops, conferences, intensives, retreats).

The meaningful experience comes out of how our sense of delight, curiosity, yearning, and wonder – for instance – are elicited. This is captivating. And we’re the better for it.

Meaningful experiences from products or business also can come out of our often near-unconscious desire to act better, to develop our talents and genius, to shape our lives more gracefully. When our best self is lifted even for a few moments, this is elevating. And we’re the better for it.

And naturally we want more of it.

Now, not surprisingly, creative-minded people launching start-ups are creating products “embedded with meaning,” to use Nussbaum’s phrase.

Artists and authors don’t just need to learn from business people how to develop their elevator speeches and make money from their work.

Business people also need to learn from artists and authors how to think differently about things and to experience the meaning of life that sometimes only artists and authors can offer.

4. What to Build a Business On

When a creative person wants to know how to make a living from her art or services or events, here is one place to start:

What meaning do you create or want to create?
What feeling do you want to create or want to create?

The questions that artists know well are the questions that business artists and business artisans are learning from. I have yet to find “Meaning” and “Feeling” in any business model. But they are as important if not more so than starting with “Delivery Channels” and UVPs and “Taglines.”

All creativity and no business might lead to a poor musician. But all business and no meaningful experience and engagement also might lead to an impoverished society.


What’s your take? What meaningful experience are you wanting to create with your things, services, or events? What feeling do you want to elicit? Share your takes below. Thanks for dropping by.

And thanks for running with me,


YBNS art

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    1. That’s a sweet place to begin to create things and business – help people laugh and experience joy. Thanks for dropping by.

      1. E: I would even say it’s a sweet place to end, not only to begin with! 😀

        Anyway, I sometimes get the sense from some in the business world that “Creative” is something they want, but not really value. 🙂 And one of the problems is that with being creative, you have to stop fearing being ‘wrong’. But most businesses can’t afford to be wrong.

  1. Jeffrey, this is great.
    I work with people who want to start small businesses.
    When they cannot articulate what they want their business to look like, I ask them what they want their customers to experience in/through/via the business…
    Without Exception, they have an answer.

    Thanks for this article.

    1. Isn’t that interesting? That human-to-human experience resonates so innately, and yet we get lost in abstractions and other factors of the marketplace. Necessary abstractions, mind you, but they’re not the heart of most small businesses. I’ve noticed, too, how profit-consumed small business owners can become that they forget this – and that the supposedly “heartless” corporations often can deliver on experience because they have the cushion of capital. Thanks for dropping by, Dawn.

  2. This is exactly what I needed to hear today. I’ve gotten myself so caught-up in the ‘shoulds’ of making my art into a business that I’ve lost track of the feeling. In the end – there’s nothing more important than that. Thank-you!

    1. Marcie~
      This road of shoulds is exactly what I’ve been witnessing among creatives-cum-creative entrepreneurs. We have to value what we uniquely offer that businesses want and stop feeling as if we have to “prove” ourselves with a business mind but lose the soul of what we do and make in the process. It’s no coincidence that MBA programs have been looking to MFA programs for inspiration.

      Thanks for dropping by, Marcie. I’m glad it resonated.

  3. Jeffrey, thank you for such an insightful post. This has brought articulation to the abstract notions I’ve been toying with over the last few months. These two worlds colliding – and cooperating, even collaborating together (business+art) to create undeniable experiences in the lives of their audiences and customers. Few brands and artists capture this, but when they do, it’s obvious, it’s unique, and it’s breathtaking. We should all strive for this as well. Thanks again!

    1. @disqus_1jpRFvxjDN:disqus – I appreciate your perspective. “Few brands and artists capture this, but when they do, it’s obvious, it’s unique, and it’s breathtaking.” That’s it.

      It’s not the things we sell or make. It’s the experience we create and share.

      What’s your line of business artistry?

      You might be curious about this one, too: https://trackingwonder.com/jeffreys-blog/2014/07/19/business-usual-art/

      Thanks for running with me

      1. Currently as a marketing manager for a natural products company, I’d say my true line of business artistry is helping to create life-changing experiences for our customers – experiences worth enthusiastically sharing with others.
        …Oh, and I read that post too. Another great one!